Next stop: space

by Angela Herring

When she was in middle school, Rachael Tompa turned down her first oppor­tu­nity to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. At the time, Tompa wasn’t much inter­ested in space travel. But by the fol­lowing year she’d revised her life plan to include “becoming an astro­naut” and asked her par­ents if her family could return. Unfor­tu­nately, the Tompas had other summer vaca­tion plans.

Thank­fully, Tompa, E/​S’14, would only have to wait a few more years to return to the launch site of each and every one of NASA’s human space flights. That’s because she landed her second North­eastern co-​​op at the Siko­rsky Devel­op­ment Flight Center in West Palm Beach, just a couple hours’ drive from the space center. While there, she got her pri­vate pilot’s license, the first step to becoming a full-​​fledged astronaut.

By the time she began researching col­leges, Tompa knew her aero­nau­tical dream was some­thing more than an ado­les­cent whim. She looked at a number of insti­tu­tions with stellar aero­space pro­grams, but she ulti­mately chose North­eastern because of co-​​op. “It gave me a good edu­ca­tion and a way to see how this edu­ca­tion applies,” said Tompa, a mechan­ical engi­neering and physics com­bined major who will grad­uate Friday at Northeastern’s com­mence­ment cer­e­mony at the TD Garden in Boston. “I came in knowing I liked the aero­space and defense industry, but I didn’t know where I fit within that.”

Though she did have an inkling: For any aspiring astro­naut, NASA is the holy grail. So when she heard that she’d been accepted into the intern­ship pro­gram at the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif., she knew she’d made the right choice some five years earlier.

At JPL, Tompa worked as a thermal engi­neer on three sep­a­rate projects. Her main project focused on an unmanned telescope-​​carrying bal­loon mis­sion. “The goal is to be a tech­nology demon­stra­tion to show how long they can hold a tele­scope pointed at a star,” she explained. “And when you’re that high above the earth, it gets really cold. And elec­tronics don’t work when they get really cold.” Tompa’s job was to develop models and sim­u­la­tions to make sure that the other ele­ments on the vessel keep the elec­tronics and optics within an appro­priate tem­per­a­ture range.

Her second project also involved thermal mod­eling for a dif­ferent unmanned mis­sion, but the third gave her an entirely dif­ferent per­spec­tive on life at JPL. “I was in a lab­o­ra­tory, run­ning tests, doing data analysis,” she said.

The goal of that project was to build a ground system that recre­ates the tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions of space on a tabletop in the lab. With such a system, she and her team were able to explore how loop heat pipes, which help reg­u­late tem­per­a­ture across a device, work when they’re up in space.

When she arrived at North­eastern, Tompa set a goal of doing three aerospace-​​related co-​​ops, which she com­pleted. She got a taste for industry, a taste for research, plus a standout edu­ca­tion in mechan­ical engi­neering, which she thought would pro­vide “a broader and better base” for an aero­nau­tics career.

Her suc­cesses earned her one of the Out­standing Coop­er­a­tive Edu­ca­tion Awards, as well as a job offer from JPL. Instead, she’ll be pur­suing another oppor­tu­nity: a doc­torate in aero­nau­tics and astro­nau­tics at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. Her next stop? Prob­ably the Inter­na­tional Space Station.

Originally published in [email protected] on May 1, 2014.

College of Science